Although almost five million people visit GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK every year, the canyon itself remains beyond the grasp of the human imagination. No photograph, no statistics, can prepare you for such vastness. At more than one mile deep, it’s an inconceivable abyss; varying between four and eighteen miles wide, it’s an endless expanse of bewildering shapes and colours, glaring desert brightness and impenetrable shadow, stark promontories and soaring sandstone pinnacles. Somehow it’s so impassive, so remote – you could never call it a disappointment, but at the same time many visitors are left feeling peculiarly flat. In a sense, none of the available activities can quite live up to that first stunning sight of the chasm. The overlooks along the rim all offer views that shift unceasingly from dawn to sunset; you can hike down into the depths on foot or by mule, hover above in a helicopter or raft through the whitewater rapids of the river itself; you can spend a night at Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor or swim in the waterfalls of the idyllic Havasupai Reservation. And yet that distance always remains – the Grand Canyon stands apart.
The vast majority of visitors come to the South Rim – it’s much easier to get to, it holds far more facilities (mainly at Grand Canyon Village) and it’s open year round. There is another lodge and campground at the North Rim, which by virtue of its isolation can be a lot more evocative, but at one thousand feet higher it is usually closed by snow from mid-October until May. Few people visit both rims; to get from one to the other demands either a tough two-day hike down one side of the canyon and up the other or a 215-mile drive by road.
Geology and history of the canyon
Geology and history of the canyon
Layer upon layer of different rocks, readily distinguished by colour and each with its own fossil record, recede down into the Grand Canyon and back through time. Although the strata at the riverbed are, at almost two billion years old, among the oldest exposed rocks on earth, however, the canyon itself has only formed in the last six million years, Experts cannot agree quite how that has happened, because the Colorado actually cuts through the heart of an enormous hill (known to Native Americans as the Kaibab, “the mountain with no peak”). The canyon’s fantastic sandstone and limestone formations were not literally carved by the river, however; they’re the result of erosion by wind and extreme cycles of heat and cold. These features were named – Brahma Temple, Vishnu Temple and so on – by Clarence Dutton, who wrote the first Geological Survey report on the canyon in 1881.
While it may look forbidding, the Grand Canyon is not a dead place. All sorts of desert wildlife survive here – sheep and rabbits, eagles and vultures, mountain lions and, of course, spiders, scorpions and snakes. Humans have never been present on any great scale, but signs have been found of habitation as early as 2000 BC and the Ancestral Puebloans were certainly here later on. A party of Spaniards passed through in 1540 and a Father Garcés spent some time with the Havasupai in 1776, but John Wesley Powell’s expeditions along the fearsome uncharted waters of the Colorado in 1869 and 1871–72 really brought the canyon to public attention. Entrepreneurs made a few abortive attempts to mine different areas, then realized that facilities for tourism were a far more lucrative investment. With the exception of the Native American reservations, the Grand Canyon is now run exclusively for the benefit of visitors, although as recently as 1963 there were proposals to dam the Colorado and flood 150 miles of the Canyon and the Glen Canyon dam has seriously affected the ecology downstream.